Alberta meat plant making changes after union calls for more COVID-19 protection for workers

Click to play video: 'Southern Alberta meat plant makes changes amid COVID-19 outbreak'
Southern Alberta meat plant makes changes amid COVID-19 outbreak
WATCH ABOVE: A meat-processing plant in High River, Alta., is trying to adjust after at least one employee tested positive for COVID-19. With conflicting reports of just how many employees have been infected, the workers’ union has now stepped in and requested the plant temporarily close. Danica Ferris reports. – Apr 13, 2020

A day after the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 wrote to the general manager of Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, Alta., to voice concerns about worksite conditions with regard to COVID-19, Cargill says it is bringing in changes.

According to the Cargill website, the plant is “a fully integrated beef processing facility, with slaughter, fabrication, rendering and hide operations all under one roof.”

In a statement issued Monday, Cargill Inc. said it will be temporarily reducing shifts at the meat plant to allow the company to “minimize the impact of COVID-19 and continue to follow health department guidelines.”

The plant will now run just one shift per day instead of the two it normally has.

The union said on Tuesday the shift reduction would result in 1,000 employees being laid off.

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However, the company said it isn’t doing layoffs, and any employees at the High River facility who are healthy can work on the first shift.

It added that when full, the shift that’s been eliminated has several hundred people working, not 1,000.

Other measures being implemented include increased sanitation, bringing in social distancing practices, banning visitors and also taking the temperature of every employee as they enter the worksite.

“In the last few days, we’ve been advised by the employer that there are 38 diagnoses of COVID-[19] at the plant,” said Thomas Hesse, the president of UFCW Local 401, which represents workers at the plant.

In a statement issued to Global News, Cargill confirmed some of its workers had COVID-19 but declined to confirm how many cases there are.

“The employees are receiving appropriate medical care,” Daniel Sullivan, the director of media relations for Cargill Protein and Animal Health, told Global News. “Due to privacy laws, we cannot share further details.

“Our priority is limiting the spread of the virus where we can, and we are working with local health officials to ensure appropriate prevention, testing, cleaning and [that] quarantine protocols are followed.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Canadian beef industry stakeholders address COVID-19 crisis

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Among the concerns Hesse had raised with Cargill was that the plant is designed around efficiency and that work being done there is not conducive to social distancing.

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He had asked for the plant to close for two weeks in order for a full safety assessment to be completed. He has also wanted guaranteed full compensation for the 2,000 or so workers if the plant was shut down.

“Understandably, they’re (the workers) very frightened,” he said on Monday. “On their behalf, we wrote to Cargill, and we said, ‘Why don’t we hit the pause button?'”

Freddy Vasquez told Global News he has worked at the plant since 2008 and tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

“I’m not really sure where I got the virus from,” he said. “People are assuming it was at Cargill, [but] it could have been anywhere.

“I know Cargill is following all of the government social distancing, the regulations.”

Vasquez’ wife, Andrea, said she hopes employees at the plant are taking the pandemic seriously.

“What I do struggle with are the people, because they are responsible for their actions, and Cargill can only do so much,” she said. “I commend Cargill for their efforts.

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“It must be so difficult in a large environment such as that.”

Hesse said not all workers share Vasquez’ view. In his letter to Cargill, he said there are reports of 30 deaths from the novel coronavirus among UFCW members across North America.

“Your employees are scared,” he wrote. “It is time to act. It is time to protect life.”

“Our employees are working hard to keep food on tables in local communities,” the North America lead of Cargill Protein, Jon Nash, said in a statement. “While this location is working at reduced capacity and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop.”

Nash added that the company’s workers are temporarily getting bonuses and/or wage increases.

On the plant switching to only running one shift per day, Nash called the decision to do so difficult but added that “our values are guiding our actions.”

Sullivan said the company continues to enforce a mandatory 14-day quarantine “for any employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, and that includes any employees who may have come into contact with any team member who has tested positive for the virus.”

Click to play video: 'Agriculture minister on Cargill meat-packing plant worker concerns'
Agriculture minister on Cargill meat-packing plant worker concerns

In a statement issued to Global News, Alberta Health Services said “there is no issue in relation to food safety at the site.”

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“COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness,” AHS said, adding that enhanced measures being introduced by Cargill at the plant “will help to ensure staff and products are safe.

“AHS Environmental Public Health inspectors have been at the Cargill site regularly since last Wednesday, and have provided the company with information on disinfection and staff protocols required to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Craig Jenne, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary?, spoke to Global News about COVID-19 and meat plants on Monday.

“Normally, when it comes to a meat-packing plant, everything inside the packing will be cooked and that’s going to more than destroy the virus,” he said. “So if you unwrap a piece of meat and cook it, and wash your hands, there’s no risk now to the consumer.

“The bigger issue, I think, is sometimes we have to think about the industry itself, and unfortunately, there are workplaces that require a lot of people to share a very common space and this does create a risk factor for viral spread among a certain enclosed workspace.”

READ MORE: Meat plant workers in U.S, Canada worry about ‘elbow to elbow’ work, lack of PPE

According to Reuters news agency, at least 10 meat plants in North America have temporarily closed or reduced production over the last few weeks because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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–With files from Global News’ Danica Ferris and The Canadian Press’ Lauren Krugel

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